Going through the motions


There is certainly a bit of a stretch in the evenings. We’re definitely on the turn.

The respective pre-season inter-county football competitions have reached the final stages with Tyrone and Derry emerging as the Dr. McKenna Cup finalists which will take place this Saturday.

Most teams have gone through the motions of fielding sides and fulfilling fixtures but motions of a different nature will be discussed at the GAA Annual Congress in Carlow in February.

The two main topics up for debate are the removal of Division 4 teams from the All Ireland Senior Football Championship qualifiers and the scrapping of the U-21 championship, replacing it with an U-20 championship.

The Championship change is a bid to streamline the SFC and offer more competitive games to teams at all levels. Scrapping Under-21 is seen as a way of averting player burnout. The reality is that the GAA recognise that the stronger teams are becoming stronger and the weaker teams becoming weaker. The hammerings dished out to some of the smaller and weaker counties in last year’s championship was an embarrassment for both the winning and losing team but more importantly, for the GAA itself.

It was the poorest championship in years: predictable, unexciting, dull and even boring. I agree that the structure of the championship is not the only factor contributing to this malaise. Managers and coaches must share some of the blame because it is they who shape and set up their respective teams to play defensive and counter attacking football.

I’ve always said that Mickey Harte initiated this style and that Jim McGuinness perfected it with Donegal. So nearly all inter-county teams are trying to employ this system. The critical difference is that only certain teams have the ability to carry out this system in order for it to work. Any team can put 13 or even 14 men behind the ball but in order to win games that team has to score. It is the ability to transition defence into attack. Players of a certain calibre and guile can only do this. Tyrone and Donegal had these players but I’m not so sure if they still have the players to adhere to such robotic styles.

Under Jim McGuinness, especially in 2012 and in 2014, we were brilliant employing this system. When it works it is exciting to watch and more importantly, it bears the fruits of accumulating scores while keeping the opposition scoring rate to a minimum.

For me the lynchpin was Mark McHugh. He was in defence when needed and in attack for attacking support at critical times. How many times did we see Frank McGlynn surge up the field last year and when the vital moment came for him to release the ball, he had to turn back to look for support? Jim McGuinness was consistent and insistent that support players get ahead of the ball when I was privy to his training sessions. I’m not there anymore so I don’t really know what systems are being employed.

As I have stated on more than one occasion, the McKenna Cup is reduced to a cosmetic exercise. Players who may have future aspirations of playing regular inter-county football are used with the hope that a handful of them will make the grade.

The National Football League will start at the end of the month when teams will introduce many of their seasoned players and a few new players who have caught the eye.

Congress will vote on scrapping the U-21 championship and reduce the age limit to one year. Why and what’s another year? How will this reduce burnout?

Scrap the pre season competitions; the McKenna Cup, the O’Byrne Cup, the FBD Cup and the McGrath Cup for starters. Reduce the number of qualifiers in the championship; the first step will be voted at Congress as mentioned earlier, and revert to the system where the National League was played pre and post Christmas.

The All-Ireland club series has had a major impact on inter-county football. This is one of the reasons why the National Football League has been moved to late January and played on consecutive weekends.

As far as I remember we had a fortnight’s break between every game which allowed for recovery and there was certainly no burn-out. We didn’t know what burn-out was.

Inter-county football was a wonderful game once. Today it is a massive commercial product where much of the basic ethos of the game has been smothered with professionalism and player fatigue. Some years back, free kicks were taken from the ground all over the pitch. Most players now cannot kick the ball off the ground. This is an art in itself. Why do you think we have goalkeepers idling three quarters way up the field to take a 45m free? Sideline balls were also kicked from the ground. The skill of high fielding is rarely seen either because of this.

Coupled with this, most goalkeepers will not drive the ball down the middle because it reduces the chances of achieving possession to a 50/50 call. Goalkeepers are tactically coached to hit a short ball to one of his players. He can do this because the opposing team has dropped one of their forwards into a defensive role.

Tackling is reduced to a minimum. Rarely do we see a physical shoulder to shoulder challenge anymore. That’s the way our game is nowadays and it’s a collective arrangement from administrators to coaches.

I’m hoping against hope that this year may signal the beginning of radical change.

Keep the faith!